Landscape Aesthetics Reflection (2)

'Eyeballs' expressing the weirdness and multiplicity of perception.

_ARTIKEL_ door Alex van Zyl

After the course ‘Landscape Aesthetics’ in the WUR bachelor program of Landscape Architecture, students wrote essays on their insight and perception of aesthetics. TOPOS will publish three views on aesthetics in a series. This is the second essay in the series. 

On the Wageningen University website, Master Planning and Landscape Architecture page, the university states that: “[Our] goal is to study and design sustainable solutions for important landscape challenges such as climate change, energy needs, health, food security and urbanisation”. I am at a university that emphasizes environmental analysis as the foundation for producing a landscape design. The university slogan does not speak to aesthetics, nor does it connect landscape architecture to artistic expression. As students, the aesthetic qualities of our designs are defensible so long as they respond to existing site conditions and their social and environmental context. My undergraduate degree, Environmental Design, in Vancouver, Canada, had a similar approach.

Prior to participating in the aesthetics course, I was ignorant of my own bias towards this functional approach. I was comfortable to discuss natural systems and ecological objectives, but I could not place them within the discourse of aesthetics and experience research. The ‘Wageningen Approach’, I now conclude, has taken a firm position towards functionality, with its own definition of function, and of nature and sustainability. This course positions Wageningen’s approach to landscape architecture within a larger discussion that, amongst other things, questions these definitions. It presents points of tension, conflict, agreement, and gaps within contemporary discourse.

'Eyeballs' expressing the weirdness and multiplicity of perception.

‘Eyeballs’ expressing the weirdness and multiplicity of perception.

By understanding the complexities and the opportunities within the discourse, I am better equipped to make informed design decisions. Ultimately, I agree with Brett Milligan’s conclusions about how design fits into the 21st century. My interpretation of his article is that, as landscape architects, we choose an infrastructure that contains an assembly of elements that operate according to ecological laws, social context, and, our own subjective choices. These elements are addressed through out the course. The most loaded element is choice, because it includes the divided research about landscape experience and the controversy over the role of aesthetics within a functioning landscape. I now refer to the articles that address these, as they make the greatest impression on how I will approach my work in the future. It is evident from Maarten Jacob’s article that landscape experience research is divided into two primary approaches: landscape preference-based research and socio-cultural research. It is also clear that the researchers of these two branches do not communicate with one another, although I believe that both contributions are applicable and useful. As a designer, seeing these research approaches side by side reveals which aspects of landscape experience are socio-cultural (and therefor place- specific) and which are evolutionary (and therefor universal). For instance, I think that every culture shares elements of Berlyne’s Arousal Theory, such as attraction to challenge and safety. Knowing that, if I choose to incorporate these elements within a design, my intention is then not to favour a particular group, but rather accommodate a general audience. However, for example, symbolism has to be used with a particular audience in mind, because different groups will ascribe their own meanings to them. The place-based research indicates to me that when I design, I have to do my own investigation of the particular place.

This socio-cultural approach carries forward into our investigation of non-western aesthetics. These are clearly are affected by a different set of social conditions and therefore produce different landscapes. I see that in order to understand why we make certain design choices, we need to understand the major drivers of our own culture. This understanding can be made clearer by placing the products of our culture next to those of another in order to draw conclusions. For instance, where Christianity and Islam are founded on principals of the creation of order by division, Buddhism and Tao emphasize interconnectedness and impermanence. This results in distinct aesthetic differences: symmetry and geometric shapes versus balanced and flowing forms. Through comparison, I realize that my own beliefs and aesthetic preferences align more with eastern approaches. However, I am undoubtedly looking through the glasses of a young, western, career-person as I design. I would like to further investigate how these design approaches have changed as modern culture has moved farther away from organized religion. Today, many young people instead conform to a capitalist, individualistic view of society that is global and instantaneous. This produces new attitudes towards design and those that produce it – the ‘Starchitect’ phenomenon is an example and the field of public art, which is producing giant, provocative eye-candy for public consumption.

Philosophies, both past and present, evidently play an important role in aesthetic decision-making. This solidifies my opinion that aesthetics are always a consideration, even though the Landscape Urbanists argue otherwise. At Wageningen, we might claim that landscape function has the highest priority, but we are operating within a much more deeply rooted belief system that influences our aesthetic sensibilities, whether or not we are aware of it. I therefore support Etteger et al.’s application of Nick Zangwill’s Aesthetic Creation Theory to landscape architecture and I would like to see it further developed and applied to our curriculum. I do not think it changes my design practice, but rather, it defends the art-making process to others. This mention of process is important, because I have often considered aesthetics as the static, end product, where as it is actually the culmination of many small sketches, visits, observations and notes.

After having dived into aesthetics theories, I did not obtain a formula about how to design a landscape. Rather, I now have an array of opinions about what that formula could be and what it has looked like in the past. It has positioned my own biases within a larger discussion about the role of landscape architecture and aesthetics in society. I am more aware of the motivations behind my designs and I understand more clearly why I cling to certain ideologies more than others. As Brett Milligan says, this is ‘environmental design in the Anthropocene’. It comes with its own messy set of problems and opportunities. As designers, we make sense of it all and ultimately create spaces that bring joy, inspire, and work harmoniously within constantly changing conditions.

Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity.
Jacobs, M. H. (2006). The production of mindscapes: a comprehensive theory oflandscape experience.
Milligan, B. (2015). Landscape migration. Places Journal.
Van Etteger, R., Thompson, I. H., & Vicenzotti, V. (2016). Aesthetic creationtheory and landscape architecture. Journal of Landscape Architecture, 11(1), 80-91. 

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